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The Politics of Female Sexuality in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

What a recent Bollywood film can tell us about risk, pleasure, desire and feminism.

In an advisory issued by the Information and Broadcasting ministry in December 2017, the Indian government banned the telecast of condom advertisements across all television channels until 10 pm on the contention that some of them were “indecent and can impact children.” The implicit idea behind the advisory is that anything involving sex or sexuality is indecent, immoral, and culturally inappropriate. If at all, sex is only allowed to come out of the closet at night, after 10 pm. The decision was seemingly fueled by conservative groups in the country due to their opposition to condom ads featuring the former porn actress, Sunny Leone. Not long before the government’s decision, a Manforce condom ad featuring Leone came under scrutiny in Gujrat during the Navratri Festival when the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) protested successfully, stating that such ads violate “social values.” Notably, Bal Krishna Bhatia, the president of the CAIT, said, “[t]his is India and it has its own culture, and anything related to sex is generally not publicly discussed.”

But is it so? If representation in Bollywood is any metric to go by, surely we can draw a long list of popular films starring objectified glam-girls and dudes who-can’t-keep-their-dick-in-their-pants, featuring racy sex scenes, sexist and suggestive songs, and rampant misogyny. Yet it is true that whenever sex enters the public sphere in a pleasure-oriented, non-breeding, sexy avatar, the Indian world begins to tremble. My contention goes further that these tremors also have to do with a specific use of pleasure, by and for women, that shakes the foundations of patriarchal society. Consider this: the 2017 film Lipstick Under My Burkha was initially denied certification by the Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC), which delayed its public release on grounds that the film is “lady-oriented, [and shows] their fantasy above life.” Besides the bewildering comment of the censors, what is interesting to me is how the film was received by its so-called progressive critics. While the film was lauded internationally for its boldness, some critics at home accused it of not being feminist enough. According to them, the film fails in liberating its women protagonists from the shackles of patriarchy despite all their agitation; that none of these daring women can eventually become a “feminist icon,” and their failed feminist struggle is “something of a tragedy.” This invariably brings us back to the debate that never seems to get old: what counts as feminism and who can be a ‘true’ feminist?

Lipstick follows the lives of four women: Leela, Rehana, Shirin, and Usha. Leela is arranged to marry Manoj, but she wants to run away with another guy to set up her own business and be independent. Rehana is a college student who comes from a conservative Muslim family. She longs to explore the cool things that girls of her age are into: lipstick, jeans and Led Zeppelin. On her escapades, she does all things forbidden: wear ‘western’ clothes, go to college parties, explore her sexuality, and participate in student protests. Shirin is in an unhappy marriage with a man who keeps forcing her to have unprotected sex with him while having an extra-marital affair himself. Nonetheless, she finds strength in her ambition to work secretly as a saleswoman and receives due recognition. Usha is an elderly, widowed woman who is respectfully addressed as “Buaji” (paternal aunt) by everyone in her milieu. Defying the societal expectation of living a chaste life, Usha reads erotic novels, hidden between the covers of her religious books, and longs to be able to live as a sexual being again.

In short, Lipstick is a narrative of how women negotiate their desires, fantasies, and dreams within patriarchal and culturally conservative social contexts on an everyday basis. It is a film about desire — not just sexual desire, but women’s desire to live life on their own terms.

The Politics of Risk

At the very outset, Lipstick begs us to pay attention to grey areas and suspend the safety of black-and-white judgements. The very title of the film grapples with the question of whether the burkha — an object that is coded as conservative — necessarily inhibits women’s freedom. And whether lipstick — an object that is coded as liberatory — necessarily translates into empowerment. The title Lipstick Under My Burkha might seem to suggest a bias towards lipstick over the burkha. One can easily read the film as showing women wanting desperately to come out of the burkha and embrace the world that the lipstick inhabits. However, in the film, women share a vexed relationship with both the lipstick and the burkha. While Rehana wants to wear jeans and lipstick, discarding her burkha, Shirin finds that burkha is an ally in her tactics to be financially independent. As Usha reads erotica titled Lipstick-wale Sapne to re-eroticize her body, lipstick gets Rehana in trouble and lands her in jail. And this is precisely where Lipstick’s feminism begins — in the willingness of its women to take risks in the pursuit of their desires, even if that involves troubles and hardships. The women in the film are both ‘lipstick-feminists’ and ‘burkha-feminists’.

Where patriarchy instructs women to be constantly surveilled and held back paternalistically, Lipstick’s women refuse such a control. While Usha is expected to live a chaste life and devote her time to religious practices, she secretly joins swimming classes to be closer to her object of desire, Jaspal, her young and hunky swimming coach. She gets involved in phone-sex with him, eventually taking the risk to meet him in person; a risk that gets her expelled from her house. However, this is not a defeat for her. In the film’s universe, the pleasure is not in what the women desire but rather in how they pursue them. And this pleasure of the chase, for Lipstick’s women, in itself is a form of freedom, a right that is rewarding. Their failure to possess the object of their desire then is somewhat irrelevant.

My Body, My Pleasures

The film reminds us that women for too long have been deprived of their bodies, objectified in cinema and ‘written’ by the male gaze. Woman has often been presented as an object to be looked at, not as a subject that wields gaze and thus power. Instead, Lipstick subverts this ideology of the male-gaze, either by rejecting it or by inverting and making it “lady-oriented.” The burkha symbolizes this inversion of the male-gaze: looking out from under the burkha rather than being looked at, and how the refusal of ‘being looked at’ might allow women in certain socio-cultural settings to do things with that temporary invisibility. There are sex scenes in the film involving Leela as well as a scene in which Usha is masturbating, none of which depict women’s bodies in a titillating, voyeuristic fashion. The narrative that runs through the film makes it clear that we are experiencing the world through the eyes of desiring women.

Women wield the binoculars of fantasy in this film. Lipstick’s women appropriate the NGO-feminist slogan “my body, my rights” to say “my body, my pleasure!” Even as these women are shown struggling to claim equal rights, they are triumphant in claiming their pleasures. The pleasures that are often denied to women around the world, even as they might enjoy several other “rights.” The four protagonists’ insistence to not give up on their bodies and its pleasures is at the core of the film and its feminist politics. In this sense, the film is not only deeply feminist, but it also presents a sort of manifesto for a feminist politics of pleasure that puts the spotlight on women’s desires and sexuality in a manner that is not restricted to the basic minimum women’s rights. This feminism is a process that involves a constant negotiation and re-negotiation between soaring desires and a more moribund culture, simultaneously allowing women to reclaim their bodies in a register other than that of extreme violence and shame. It asks us to push the borders of our feminist politics, and think of rights, freedoms and justice beyond the notions sanctioned by patriarchal law. The CBFC deemed Lipstick dangerous because it could empower women to assert their autonomy and express their desires. Even as they remain in the realm of fantasy, possibly out of reach of the four women at the end of the film, these are nonetheless desires — active and mobile, risky but exhilarating — that threaten the patriarchal social order.

The Laugh of Medusa: Towards a ‘Borderless Feminism’

At the end of the film, after Usha is thrown out of her house, Leela, Shirin and Rehana come to give her succour. The four women bond over their potentially thwarted desires but they do not cry over their unfulfilled desires, they laugh instead. Theirs is a subversive laughter that “jams sociality,” in the French feminist Helene Cixous’s words. They become Cixous’s “beautiful” Medusa, who laughs “in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the “truth” with laughter.” As the official poster of the film makes visually evident, Lipstick’s desire, and its feminism, is to raise this middle-finger to patriarchy.

If feminism fundamentally asks us to think about gender and how it is constructed, then we have to attend to the borders that gender creates. When Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak speaks of building a feminist world, she talks about “the long-term work of imagining the borderlessness that attends to borders. To be borderless is also a pleasure for the female. We cannot deny this pleasure as we are working towards a feminist world…” Lipstick pays heed precisely to this politics of borderlessness. It gives us female bodies that cannot be contained; that will move, explode, speak up, and write their self in a way that Cixous urges women to. It gives us unapologetic women who take risks, come down from the pedestals that men place them on, and embrace their imperfections; women who risk human failures that have long been inaccessible to them.

In brief, these women blow up the borders that are imposed on them by patriarchy. This “borderless feminism” does not present a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of patriarchy. It is a slow but steady process of bringing women back to their bodies. Lipstick’s women are dismantling patriarchal oppression as they risk the social over the sexual. They are laughing, dreaming and arriving at the beginning of their feminist revolution.

Far from caving in to patriarchy, Lipstick Under My Burkha gives us a version of what women’s freedom might look like. The film beckons that there are two sets of conversations that we need to have. The first comprise of the questions that feminism has been asking for several decades (and must continue to ask) in relation to inequality, violence and social justice. The second concerns that which often escapes the register of the institutional politics. That of women’s pleasures, desire and fantasy. This too demands a freedom from patriarchal violence and bondage, but it is not necessarily about freedom from risk. As suggested by the film, it is instead a freedom of risk; risk that accompanies the freedom of mobility and choice. With that, the film reminds us that revolutions are persistent battles rather than a straight-forward, single, decisive war. What Lipstick Under My Burkha does is the “slow work” of inspiring women to dream and chase their desire of a feminist world, while being cognizant that this work can be unglamorous.

Shiv D. Sharma is a founding member of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University in India. He is currently pursuing a MA in Historical Studies at NSSR as a Fulbright Scholar. Follow Shiv on Twitter and Instagram.

This piece was originally published at Public Seminar on February 4, 2019.

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